“Just head west.”
There’s something sexy about the end of the world. Something gleaming, dark and fulfilling about watching buildings crumble into rivers, oceans billow and twist around the landscape, eating away at what was left as Mansbrooke Broche bit his cracked and drying lips, tasting blood, hands firmly at the wheel. He used to get bullied for his name as a kid. Mansbrooke Broche. Sounds like a law firm: “Mansbrooke & Broche.”
Just. Head. West.
The umpteenth time he had uttered those words. West was to the coast. And the coast meant water. There was even talk of a commune on the coast line. He was tired, but couldn’t sleep, like a loving android, stuck in the pinnacle of an automated shutdown.
Stephan was rolling a cigarette.
The two guys, Stephan and Mansbrooke, in the front seat, the two girls, Francesca and Yelena, in the back.
“Sure. Just head west,” Stephan said, running his lips over the thin gum on his paper, “Jus’ head fuckin’ west eh?” His thick Scottish accent became even more prominent when he was pissed off.
“Give it a rest Steph,” Yelana called,“ flicking Stephan in the back of the ear, “West is the only way Maria knows. Mansbrooke knows.”
“Maria, Maria, maybe tomorrow, fuckin’ Maria eh?” Stephan retorted, putting the cigarette in his mouth.
What they had christened the car they traveled in, more rust than transport. At first a token to the ironic fifth member of the group, it had quickly become something else. The hunk of rust headed west, cruising across the land like a scarab beetle, carving it’s way through dirt and desolation. Scavenging to survive. Mansbrooke knew that the others wanted to go back into the cities, to the empty tower blocks and the empty shopping centers and the empty churches and the empty loft apartments, silent as a broken child’s toy. They thought just heading west was foolish and that the cities still held fresh hopes and dreams and maybe even retribution. But really, what else was there to say? Where else to go?
“All I’m saying,” Stephan said, “is what happens when we get ‘west’ and there’s nothing fuckin’ there? What then Man? What then? What happens to us and Maria then?”
“Stephan, dude,” Francesca called, brushing her dreads out of her hair, scraping enough pot together from her tin to make an achingly small spliff, “can we please try and stop talking about if’s and when’s?” She rolled her head back, opening her arms wide, “Why can’t we just drive?”
“Been doing that since we left, Cesc. Not all of us can live in a dreamworld. It wasn’t my idea to name the fuckin’ car. ”
“Stephan shut up yeah? Just shut yer gob.” Yelena said from behind Stephan, waving her finger at him.
“All of you, shut up,” Mansbrooke shouted, slamming his hand on the wheel. Maria veered suddenly into a patch of long grass, “all of you shut the fuck up. I mean it, I’m trying to think, I need some headspace, We all agreed that this wasn’t to be thought of as a dangerous trek across the unknown, it was a Roadtrip. Roadtrips are meant to be fun, alright? So just… just shut up.”
And for a while no one said anything. But they all knew there was some truth to what Mansbrooke had said. They all knew that they had agreed to this. No one had forced them to leave. People did stay behind. But the four of them had seen the events of the last five years as an excuse to just up sticks and leave. The people who had left, left to find water, or food or shelter. The four of them had left to find experiences. The dying light from the sun slipped down over the horizon, crawling away into the night, crying, bleeding.
Mansbrooke had never been the same since he had lost his legs, mere days after they had left. That’s why he was the one who drove, the job he assigned himself to keep his mental focus on something other than his disability. kept in place by trussing his limbless bottom half to the undercarriage of the front seat of Maria, his arms firmly planted at the steering wheel, a broken brick resting on the accelerator, his rotund middle held in place by the length of blue tarpaulin rope they had scavenged from the wreckage of a 18 wheeler torn open and strewn across the motorway, it’s gleaming hull cleaved in half by god knows what. Attached to Maria by wires, strapped in and suited up, Mansbrooke ran his fingers over the steering wheel, caressing it, feeling the mismatched stitching and worn leather beneath his gloves, frayed after years of abuse. The smell of engine oil hung thick, heavy in his nostrils, cursing through Maria’s veins like a blood. And for a while, nothing was said as they cruised along the former river banks and the cold, dead concrete of roads long since used, night drawing in close round Maria, collecting in pockets of pure inky blackness at the wing-mirrors and the spaces that the headlights didn’t dare to occupy, the tires rolling and gambling over rocky screed and bird skulls. The birds had been the first to die, falling from the skies in droves and landing upon the soft earth, their brittle little bodies disappearing into the feculence. And for a good deal longer, nothing was said.
Then, apropos of nothing, Stephen looked up, lit a cigarette and gesticulated to Mansbrooke.
“Okay, am’ gonna say it. What happens if we get to the coast and there’s ney boat? Ney commune? Ney fresh water? Then what Man? Then fuckin’ what?”
Mansbrooke glanced back at Yelena and Francesca, who had both fallen asleep, then glanced back at Stephen, his brow furrowed, his lips still dry.
“We should stop here. We can’t travel at night anymore. We’ll go the rest of the way tomorrow.” He said in a monotone, avoiding Stephan’s eye like a scorned child.
Stephen took a drag on his cigarette and laughed bitterly to himself.
“You’re the boss.”
Mansbrooke didn’t take his eyes off the vista in front of him, navigating through a series of overturned cars, a Mercedes and a 4x4.
“You think we should of stayed?”
Stephen took a long hard drag until it visibly pained him to keep smoking.
“Doesn’t matter what I think.”
Mansbrooke killed the engine. Maria stuttered to a grinding, shearing halt, finally collapsing in one of the few patches of grass they had seen, under the shade of a dead oak tree.
“Stephen,” Mansbrooke said, looking at his friend, “You worked at a job you hated, for not enough money, to live in a flat that was always cold with people you couldn’t stand. Is this really so much worse?” He pulled the cigarette from under Stephens lips and put it in his own mouth, “This… all of this. Is it really so much worse than what we had already?”
“I’ll better grab the sheet. Coz’ it’s setting in already. Can feel it Man, can you feel it?”
He grabbed Mansbrooke by the lapels of his jacket, pulling him close up against him.
“Can you fuckin feel it?”
Mansbrooke could feel it.
And so, once the girls were awake, the three of them pulled the huge green sheet out of the boot Maria and pulled it over both Maria and Mansbrooke, leaving nothing but a great, white, unidentifiable mass in the countryside, the growing darkness around them causing the great and familiar mass of paranoia and death to wallow inside them like a cancer, eating them from the inside out. For a while there was only misery and suspicion as they lay bolt upright in their seats, eyes closed, clutching at Maria for comfort as the feelings lingered and languished, dripping and dropping into nightmare and confusion for hours at a time.
For Mansbrooke at least, it had been subtle in the beginning. At first, his nights became more disturbed; he found that he awoke earlier, took longer to regain consciousness. Eventually it got so bad that he couldn’t sleep at all. And then came the headaches. The constant, throbbing headaches, like the point of a rapier pressed up against his cortex. He had tried everything to get rid of them: Beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, adrenalin injections, high dose ibuprofen, steroids, Trager Mentastics, violent exercise, Cafergot suppositories, caffeine, acupuncture, marijuana, Percodan, Midrine, Tenormin, Sansert, homeopathics. No results. He stared up at the roof of Maria, imagining the rust marks were stars in an impossibly hazy sky. Gripping the gearstick, Mansbrooke told himself that this would all pass come morning, like always. His heart rate would return to normal, his face would stop feeling like it was trying to explode from his skull. It was the nights; only the nights.
Suddenly. Mansbrooke was awake, but he couldn’t see anything under the sheet, the windscreen a mass of off-white. Groggy like a newborn, but something had woken him, he was sure of it, and through the pain in his head, he noticed that he was the only one left in Maria. His vision was swirling still, his eyes numb as he struggled to readjust to being awake, chinks of light shining through the sheet. And that’s when he heard the first gunshot, piercing, splitting the quiet air in two and then a scream, and then frantic, heavy movements. His heart racing faster, beating in his ear like a tribal drum circle, he wound down the window to listen at least. He could hear a woman’s voice, and crying, (In pain? Or with sadness?) and then Stephen, yelling like a man possessed.
“Easy eh? C’mon take it easy yeah?”
“We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine. And the machine is bleeding to death.” A woman’s voice this time.
“We’ve all felt it Yel, we’ve all felt it but for fucks sake, for fucks sake! Don’t let the beast get to you! It’ll pass, it always passes!” Stephen again.
Silence and then…
“I’m going back.” Yelena?
What was she doing?
“You can’t go back Yel, come on, fuckin’ put the gun down you daft cunt, before ya get yaself killed.”
“I miss my job, I miss my local, I even miss my landlady. Just let me go back.”
“Yel…” a palpable silence, “That’s all gone. All of it… it’s fucked Yel, I know, believe me I know yeh, but for fucks sake, just put down the fuckin’ gun eh?”
More silence. Now more than ever, Mansbrooke missed his legs.
And then suddenly more gunshots, followed by a deafening “fuuuuuuuuck!” from Stephen and suddenly the sheet was thrown from Maria, broad daylight blinded the sky as Stephen threw himself into the passenger seat, ducking beneath gunshots, screaming to high heaven as Mansbrooke instinctively turned Maria on, felt her vibrating beneath his torso and slammed her into first gear.
The last thing Yelena ever saw a hunk of rust hurtling towards her, a terrified Stephen and a startled Mansbrooke staring back at her, as she disappeared beneath the bonnet and under the wheels with a sickening thud and a crack that made Mansbrooke nauseous like a pregnant teenager. The grinding of gears, a crunching of femur, and then all was silence again, but only a short while, as Cesc let out a scream that echoed across the plains. Stephen disappeared and reappeared moments later, carrying the small girl in his burly, blood-soaked arms, laying her down on the back seat.
“Ohhhh man, what tha fuck, what the fuck Man!” Stephen said frantically, tearing at Cesc’s clothes as her eyes rolled back in her head. Oh this is bad, this is really really bad eh?”
“Can someone please tell me what the fuck just happened?” Mansbrooke shouted.
But all he could do was look on in absolute terror as Stephen tended to Cesc, her blood settling in big, fat, shiny globules on the felt of the backseat, mixing with the tobacco stains and the cigarette burns.
“For fucks sake Man, don’t just sit there! She’s been shot to shit, drive ya fat prick! Christ on a bike!”
And so Mansbrooke drove, as fast and as straight as he could, with Stephen in the backseat, holding Cesc’s head up like her mother, her shirt wrapped round her middle as he pressed hard upon her wound, still spouting trickles of blood.
“Man, she’s a gonner if we don’t get her help soon. How far is it? How far is the fuckin coast man?”
But now did not seem like the best time for honesty.
“It’s not far Steph just… do what you can.”
And Mansbrooke drove until they arrived at the coast, to find what they had found everywhere else: empty buildings, empty houses, emptiness. And Stephen shouted and screamed and clawed at Mansbrooke for lying, for leading them on, for giving them false hope and false prophesy. And all Mansbrooke could focus on was the throbbing pain in his head, and his dying friend on the backseat; Stephen’s words were nothing but numb darts being launched in his direction.
For a good few hours, Maria and Stephen and Cesc sat at the edge of a cliff, looking out into the sea. No fuel, no food, nothing but the whistle of the wind and the scream of the waves below. Cesc was stable, but slowly dying, laying on the backseat, her blood caked around the edges of her jumper.
Stephen lit a cigarette and turned to Mansbrooke.
“I canne fuckin’ believe you ran Yelana over Man.” He said, sparking up, “I mean… that was some cold shit huh?” he laughed.
“She would have killed all of us. You know what happens when you let the darkness in.”
Stephen turned away.
“I’m sorry about your legs.” he mumbled into his lap.
Just as Mansbrooke was about to forgive his friend, Stephen leapt up and scrambled out of Maria, screaming, “A ship! That’s a fuckin’ ship! He scrambled down the cliffside path, onto the pebbly beach, howling at the rainy skies, his arms above his head, a delirious bastard.
Mansbrooke turned to Cesc, her eyes open, but bloodshot.
“Man…. I told you… gotta drive faster…” She said slowly, a big bubble of spit forming on her upper lip and then bursting, dripping into one of her dreds.
“Just hold on. Okay? Stephan’s coming back for you. Uh… I mean us.”
After an eternity, Stephen returned, grinning from ear to ear.
“It’s definitely a fuckin’ boat,” he said excitedly, opening the backdoor and lifting up Cesc into his arms who winced with pain, “imma go signal, let them know we need someone who can sew up a fuckin’ bullet wound eh? You lucky son of a bitch. You get to untruss yourself for once.”
“I’m not coming.” Mansbrooke said firmly, rolling a cigarette.
“Ya what?” Stephen said, looking at him, his grin fading”
“I’m not coming.”
Stephen furrowed his brow.
“Mate… come on.” he pleaded, “It’s jus’ a fuckin’ Car. It’s a LADA Kalina wagon, for fucks sake, eh?”
“There’s a reason I left.” Mansbrooke explained calmly, wrapping up the line of tobacco into a thin white tube, “Working as a butchers assistant, working 9 to 5. I hated it then and I hate it now. No, me and Maria are gonna sit here and watch the sunset.”
“Take care of Cesc for me yeah?” Mansbrooke said, taking out a match and striking it, lighting his cigarette.
Stephen grimaced but nodded.
“See you soon eh? Ya fat prick.” He smiled awkwardly.
And with that they were gone, down onto the beach.
All was becoming dark as the sun set. Mansbrooke smiled to himself, taking a drag on his cigarette, before flicking the still lit end onto the floor between his stumps,
“Just. Head. west.” He said out-loud.
Maria burned for less than an hour before the flames died, an all consuming fire and smoke that hung thick and heavy and could be seen for miles around. Mansbrooke felt the pain in his head subside.
Just head west.